Breakfast (Psst. It's a euphemism). Photo: John Moore/Getty Images
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Rule one of the Breakfast Club: there’s no place more embarrassing to see someone you know

Does a breakfast taken in the first term of the Thatcher administration still count?

And so to – well, how shall I describe the place where I am sitting? There are people with delicate sensibilities out there, some of whom write to me, more in sorrow than in anger, when I use a rude word in this column. I am not saying these people are unaware of or squeamish about the facts of life; in fact, I consider them the nation’s backbone, and probably the kind of people who can be relied on to make you a decent cup of tea when they offer you one.

So let us say ... let us say I am at a place called the Breakfast Club.

The Breakfast Club is the place you go to when, for example, a lady says she might like to have breakfast with you, but wants assurances over and above your word that you have not, by reason of having had breakfast with another lady at any previous point in your life, contracted anything she might catch, thus marring or putting a dampener on her having breakfast with either you or anyone else in the future. I am referring, of course, to unprotected breakfast.

One’s word in this matter is not enough. There is a character in The Archers – so crooked, as the sublime Nancy Banks-Smith describes him, that he could hide behind a spiral staircase – who has been accused by his ex-wife of fathering her child; he refuses to “play her twisted game” by having a DNA test. His current partner may be deluded enough to believe him but it is only a matter of time before she learns the error of her ways.

So, it is with a squeaky-clean conscience that I turn up to the Breakfast Club. I know where I have had my breakfasts and exactly whom with for many years now. But there is still a stigma attached to such places, the faint echo of sniggers at postwar cartoons from the more risqué magazines. I look about myself. I’ve been having the feeling, very strongly, all day long, that I am going to run into someone I know. I put this down mainly to the fact that I’ve been bustling about London on an errand for myself all afternoon, and that even though there are ten million sinners in the city, you’re more likely to meet one of the few you know on the Tube or some other public place than in the bedroom of your Hovel, eating Frazzles.

The waiting room is large and partitioned; but at one point a couple of us, sitting in one of the outlying regions, are asked to go back to the area just opposite the admissions and pre-check interview desks, “so we can see how many people are waiting”. Apparently a significant proportion of those who attend the Breakfast Club lose their nerve at some point and do a runner before they are called. Anyway, this move places me in an area in which seven or eight people are waiting in close proximity to each other; if you put a Monopoly board on the table in the middle we could all have a game together without anyone having to stretch.

Interestingly, although there are distinctly separate Male and Female waiting rooms once registration has been done, until then it would seem the NHS likes us all, men and women alike, to get chummy to begin with. All this while answering questions on a form that some might consider to be intrusive – but are, I concede, entirely relevant. Have I ever had anal breakfast? Golly. Have I ever had breakfast with a man? Well, at the university I was at, the only way you were going to have breakfast with a woman student was if you owned half of Devon or were already a woman, so . . . But does a breakfast taken in the first term of the Thatcher administration still count?

I try not to stare but, as Terence put it, Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto; also, it would appear that the women here are more attractive than average. “Hello, lovely,” says the admin clerk to one exceptionally attractive woman, loud enough for all to hear, and proceeds to chat her up. The best place? Opposite me is an aged Muslim man. I can tell he is Muslim because of the headgear, the beard, and the fact that his phone’s ringtone is a chanted verse from the Quran. When he gets up, he walks with a gait strongly suggestive of intense genital chafing.

I also notice, with a certain amount of pleasure, that I am by no means the oldest man there. “You see?” I feel like saying. “There’s life in us old dogs yet. There are still women out there who . . .” and while I’m looking at the back of a new arrival’s head, he turns and sees me and, with a big smile on his face, advances towards me, his hand outstretched in familiar greeting. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge